Menachem's Writings

Learning from Experience
Exhibiting Photographs in New York

The Jewish Community of Hebron holds a dinner annually in New York City. This gala event brings together supporters of the work of the rebuilders of the Jewish presence in the City of our Forefathers. Last year (2007) the organisers asked to use my Birchon Hevron for the dinner. We had just published this new bencher. The dinner took place in November.

Yossi Baumol, the director of the Hevron Fund in America, and a resident of Efrat, also arranged for me to display at the dinner an exhibition of my photographs of Hevron and of some of my well known Gush Katif Actualities in Black & Orange collection. The event was held in the spacious ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

I had put on a couple of exhibitions before. My first, Eating Out in Thailand, was held down the road at the "Little Gallery in Efrat". This well lighted gallery doubles as the entrance foyer to the local library so has considerable passing traffic. Though the exhibition ran for a month, I didn't sell any photographs. I suppose, largely because I didn't really expect to sell any. I think there is a lot of mindset involved here. A hundred and fifty people came to the opening cheese and wine evening and many viewed the collection subsequently. I guess I felt a bit funny pushing my acquaintances into buying my art. I received a lot of enthusiastic praise and comments -- people stopped me in the street -- are those your photographs? -- but nothing translated into dollars and cents (or rather into shekels). It was a very positive experience in a number of ways, largely for my ego.

On the last day of Maoz Yam, the settlement in the old Gush Katif Hotel, I held a one night one-man exhibition. The "new" settlers were trying to overcome the unfortunate and artificial rift and distrust of the veteran residents, who, at point in time, thought they were safe in their homes forever. The exhibition and accompanying concert were well attended by many veterans and a busload of supporters from the centre of the country. I displayed the first sixteen works from my very new Actualities in Black & Orange collection.

I sold a few photographs and also a couple hundred of the new birchon, featuring photographs of the Gush and also some of the Actualities pictures. This was the first public showing of the collection and of the bencher. As the photographs were mounted in silver frames, they were easy for the purchasers to carry away. I even brought some small change to ease the sales process, and a couple f girls helped sell the benchers so I had time to talk to people about my work. My ego received a good stroking that evening.

We held a book launch for my new publication at the old Mickey Mouse Judaica Centre in Gush Etzion in January 2006. I dedicated and autographed books, but I was not directly involved in the sales. The Centre had bags and change and credit card facilities, so there was no problem with people taking home their purchases. I think they sold about seventy books, but four or five photographs. As four hundred people came to drink my wine and eat some cheese, my ego was floating high.

I held a small exhibition of the Black & Orange collection at the Begin Centre around the same time. It was part of an artistic presentation on the traumas of the expulsion from Gush Katif in the eyes of various artists.

So when Joe suggested I come to New York, we felt we were experienced and well prepared. Well sort of.

We readied the exhibition photographs and mounted them in Israel before travelling. As we had to carry everything with us, we needed to travel light. About eighteen photographs of Hevron, mounted on board and passepartout (photo mat) and twelve Black & Orange, not mounted but taped to passepartouts. We intended to buy some frames from Ikea in the States. We set up the photomats for a perfect fit into these frames. We did consider mounting in New York, but this is expensive and we did not want to take any risks of not being ready in time for the dinner.

Of course, we left visiting Ikea until the night before the exhibition. Well not entirely our fault -- it was the first time someone offered to drive us to the store. But we arrived at Ikea at 9:00 p.m. and they were closing at 9:30. And we still needed to get to Office Depot for some supplies for the exhibition. We were in New Jersey which still has Sunday "blue laws". These come into effect at 10 p.m. on Saturday night. We had no time to waste. If you've ever been to Ikea, you know you have to enter by going upstairs first, wind your way around the furniture displays to the stairs leading down and then wind your way to the cashiers -- it's all designed to maximise your exposure to their products. We assumed the layout in Teaneck was the same as in Netanya back home in Israel. So we ran in through the cashier area (reverse direction), though the furniture pick up area and -- oh no -- oh, it's OK -- this building was a mirror image of the one we knew. We found them, right where we expected, grabbed four frames and ran to the registers. "Excuse me, do you mind if I go in front of you" to someone with an overloaded shopping cart. "No problem." "Thanks." Whew! That was good, we were back outside in less than ten minutes. But back to the car and out of the car park took another twelve. In America they do everything big.

Off to Office Depot. In a another shopping complex. Other side of the highway. Made it. Damn, they closed at nine. Too late to find alternative.

We went out for supper with the friends who were driving us around. Finally back to where we were staying at around midnight. We'd better frame the photographs now. Who knows what'll be tomorrow. Another hour goes by until we are satisfied with our work.

Next morning we decide that maybe it really is a good idea to label the art. We had discussed this but done nothing. It's not obvious to everyone what is being shown in each photograph. I had titled all the photographs in pencil on the lower left corner of the picture, along with my signature and the copy number (each out of a limited edition of eighteen). Labelling in large letters makes it easier for people to read and view. I already had the texts in a file on my laptop already. I pasted them into a wordprocessor and laid them out appropriately.

My cousins, with whom we are staying, have an inkjet printer. I fail to connect it to my computer. Jill says, no problem -- I'll retype the texts quickly on their computer. OK -- all set up -- let's print. Murphy's Law. No ink! and no spares. Yes, the cyan and magenta cartridges contain a bit of dye -- the black and yellow are out completely. OK, the machine made the decision -- we print in blue. Printed the last label as the cyan ink runs out!

My cousins insist on driving us into Manhattan to the hotel. We pass a stationery shop -- no blue laws in New York. Great! We buy a few rolls sticky tape, they didn't have big bags on sale, we took some pins, and some little stickers to mark sold items. We were as prepared as we could be.

An hour to spare. My cousin works at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan so we have a quick tour and meet the photographs curator. Then off to the hotel. Barbara helps us get the stuff out of the car. Rudy spends the next hour driving around the block -- no parking at Grand Central Station. Barbara wanted to make sure we were all set up before leaving us alone in the Big Apple.

The hotel provides thirty identical easels for us. Perfect. There is large, long foyer at the entrance of the main hall. The smorgesbord (what Americans call a buffet or hors d'oeuvres) is set up on the far side of the vestibule. They allocate the other half to our work. Great. The guests come up the escalator, check in their coats to the cloakroom and must walk past my photographs to get to the food. It also worked in reverse -- the Viennese Table, American for dessert -- was in the same location. People ate their cream cakes and had to walk back via the exhibition to the cloakroom. For me, it was the perfect set up.

Perhaps our expectations were not high due to Yossi, not wanting to disappoint us, saying on a number of occasions, "I don't know if you will sell any photographs -- I can't guarantee anything". He even said it again just as we finished setting everything up. Yossi, don't worry, we'll have a ball. Don't worry about us. We're already having fun just being here. But suddenly it dawned on us that if we do actually sell anything, how were the purchasers going to take the photographs home. It was windy outside, and it could start raining at any moment.

The dinner journals were packed in big boxes. Also each guest was to receive a leather tea box with a design of the Cave of the Patriarchs on the lid. Volunteers started putting this out on the tables. They were wrapped in bubble wrap and thin packing foam. Jill started collecting the packing material. From all around the ballroom. She amassed it under our tables.

We were all set up. We had the thirty easels around the foyer -- some facing the cloakroom and some facing the smorgesbord table. We also had a little table with ten copies of my book for sale as well as a pile of Gush Katif Benchers. People started to arrive. My blood pressure and adrenalin start to rise. Some guests walk straight past us, almost as if we do not exist, but others started walking around the display. We made ourselves available to answer questions and explain the places in the photographs. Most of the people claimed to know Hevron well, but I have pictures of places with they were unfamiliar: Ulam Yitzhak (unfortunately now only open to Jews ten days a year -- I used to walk through their daily when I studied in Yeshiva), the Tomb of Avner ben Ner, the Tomb of Ruth and Yishai.

Then someone said, "Are these for sale?" "Certainly." And we made our first sale. Jill quickly started wrapping it in the material we had scavenged, using the cello tape we bought earlier. Someone else made a purchase. "Shall I mark it as sold with a little sticker? and you can pick it up on your way out." "No, I'm leaving now -- not staying for dinner." We sold four photographs before the dinner started, six books and a bunch of birchonim. We were literally run of our feet. Explaining, showing, discussing, taking money, looking for change, wrapping . . . .

Many people took business cards. I had two versions there: one with a photograph of the Ma'arah on the back and a second featuring Beit Hadassah. Over the course of the evening I think at least 600 cards were taken. People took them as collectors' items.

I ring Rudy and Barbara during a short interval to tell them to come back to the hotel with a giant ladder. With the praise for my work and the sales, "my ego will need to scraped of the ceiling!" They were thrilled for us.

We left the books on the table and went into the ballroom to see part of the program. The foyer was empty. Ten minutes later we came and one of the books had disappeared. Three left. We sold two more during soup and a few minutes later, I look around and another book disappears. They seemed to be growing legs and running off. Then I see it. "Excuse me sir, would you like to purchase my book? I'll even autograph it if you like" "Oh I wasn't sure if it was a give-away or a sale item, so I was looking for you. How much is it? Go easy, I'm just a poor rabbi with a diminishing New York City congregation. How about I sell them for you to my congregants?"

We sold a couple more photographs during dinner. During dessert a gentlemen said to me, "How much is that one? OK, and that one? Great, and how about that one. OK, I'll take all three." By now Jill was raiding the concierge for laundry bags. We still had some packing material, but no tape left to hold it down. Somehow we fudged through the evening.

One of my Black and Orange photographs features a hand holding a kiddush cup with a sheva brachot card in the background. A couple of guys were looking at it, discussing it. One said to the other, "This would be perfect for our synagogue Kiddush Club". I don't want them to think badly of me later, so I point that the photograph was taken at a wedding, under the huppah. "No problem, for us it is a kidush cup. Moshe, I'll pay for it if you promise to frame it and have it up in the room before next shabbos." And they didn't even want it wrapped.

What did we learn from the experience?

  • Packing material -- bring plenty of it. Especially bags.
  • Spare (doubles of) pictures on hand to replace ones that are sold. (Yes there is a transportation problem getting them over from Israel). When two people wanted the same image, I said I would send the second person another. No thanks. I learned it's all about impulse buying.
  • Have plenty of small change on hand, especially for cheap items like the birchonim ($1.50 each)
  • Your Internet site is never as good as being on location, especially to an interested group. Of all the business cards given out on the night, I can't say for sure that I had a response later on.

I believe, that in addition to exposure to my work, my exhibition positively contributed to the Dinner. They organised a great program for their 800 wonderful guests, but I think I was able to add a focus that was different and unique, due to my unique perspective and the fact that I photographed lesser known and not easily accessible areas of Hevron. However if you are looking forward to see my photographs again this year, you'll have to organise something else for me, because Joe informed me that someone on his board doesn't want me there this year. That's OK too. I am very happy to have been there last year.

If someone is interested in the Samaritans Passover sacrifice, I have a great exhibition for you.

Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.


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